Table of Contents
This list of key issues and terms was originally developed for a networking event for the Scottish Centre for Regeneration. It was deliverately non-tech - but may trigger ideas for the A-Z of social media and networking
Activities and interaction
Activities and interactions are what make networks more than mailing lists. These may be events, one-to-one meetings, socials, email exchanges, phone calls. Network maps can show where the communication flows and connections are. Aim for a mix to suit different preferences and spread the organising to avoid overload and cliquiness.
You may network informally for many reasons, but if you are setting up a network it is important to be able to explain why the network exists, and who benefits. The aims of a network are likely to be less defined that those of a more formal organisation, because networks serve the many and varied interests of their members as well as some common purpose.
The approach that you bring to networking is often more important than the particular methods you use. To connect be friendly, open, trustworthy - and recognise people's differences and preferences.
Auditing is the formal term for finding out who is doing what, where their skills and interests lie, and what they can offer. Turn the information into profiles so people can form useful relationships. If you also ask who knows who, you can create a map to show connections.
Badges are a small but important networking tool. Offer big ones at events so people can add their interests and make introductions more easily. Online the equivalent could be a place for profiles linked to contact details.
The personal benefits of networking can include new contacts, learning, support, and much more. If you are setting up a network you need to be clear what is on offer - and what is expected. Thinking about services in a formal network gives this focus.
Shared calendars of events can be a good way to encourage people to connect with people in other organisations, and so build the basis for a network.
Capacity and confidence
Everyone is good at different things … and has their own pet hates. Since networks and networking depend so much on enthusiasm it is important to mix the formal and informal, and the methods that you use.
Networks usually need a core group to keep them going, but it is important they are not seen as a clique by other members. Avoid this by establishing groundrules on who can participate, being open with communications and invitations, and running well-facilitated or hosted events.
Networks are usually made up of lots of sub-networks or clusters of interests. These may become communities of practice if people focus on practical challenges.
If you find the committees are outnumbered or overshadowing the connections between members, you probably don't have a network. For networkiness think core, clusters, groups.
The key components of networks are people, links, groundrules. These define the structure, and activities make networking possible.
However many groups and clusters there are in a network - and however strong the core - there should be somewhere everyone can get together if they want to. An event, a place or a virtual place online.
The lifeblood of networking - and it must be to and fro between members, not just centre out, otherwise the network is no more than a mailing list.
Local communities are made up of many interlinked networks of interest, activity, kinship and sociability. Neworks may also be formed from communities of interest, or communities of practice.
Communities of Practice
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn more from each other, and solve problems.
It takes different sorts of people to make networks work, and those who act as connectors, passing on information and contacts are particularly important. If you draw network maps, you can see who and where they are.
Whether you are networking personally, or building a network, keeping track of contacts is essential - whether through an address book, a computer database, or set of online profiles.
As well as connections and common ground a network needs some shared information content for people to feel part of it. Newsletters, open discussion places, and members offering material to others can provide this.
Where networking takes place will have a big impact on what works or not. Is this somewhere people already know and trust each other … or do they have to build new relationships and understanding? Is there a history that may or may not be helpful?
For networks to succeed members must give something as well as take, and these contributions should help achieve the overall aims of the network. In starting or managing a network it is important to make sure people are able to contribute in ways that reflect their skills and interests. This will also help ensure some sense of ownership.
Too much control, in one place, can kill networking. To avoid this it may help to rotate who hosts meetings, and avoid central control of communications. Over-directive facilitation can inhibit networking too.
Organisations may need the formality of reports and presentations, but networks thrive on conversations. That means chatty newsletters open to contributions, plenty of sociability, well hosted events with presentations kept to a minimum.
In practice some people are more central in networks, and more energetic. They can form a core, with circles around them of others more or less interested, cross-cut by groups and clusters. But see also cliques.
Just as personal attitude is what makes people networky or not, so culture helps create the context in which networking can thrive or not. That means non-hierarchical, open, friendly.
The loose, flexible structure of networks is not good for decision-making, but you can aim to build a trusted core for the network where consensus can develop using a mix of communication methods.
Do it yourself
“No consultants” was one of the Post-its written at the Partners in Regeneration event, and it is a good reminder that someone else can't build your relationships for you.
Email is the networking tool with the greatest reach, particularly if used both one-to-one and in email lists and newsletters. However, not everyone is connected, not everyone likes email, and often a phone call can be more effective. It has to be just part of the mix.
If you find you are using email extensively, look at email lists as a way of organising one-to-many communication (newsletters) and many-to-many discussion. The resources section gives some pointers.
Enthusiastic people are important for networks… but can easily become dominant if there aren't groundrules about openness and control. Good facilitation at events can help ensure some balance, together with social events open to all.
Events, properly organised, super-charge the energy flows in a network by firing people's enthusiasms and sparking communications. While some people may like structure and facilitation, others may be more comfortable with informal, social opportunities to meet. Either way, it is important to give people the chance to form their own interest groups.
Face to face
Once upon a time most networking was face to face… then we had telegraphs and phones, and more recently the Internet. Even the greatest Net enthuasiasts generally recognise it makes a big difference to meet someone physically because you pick up a lot about their style of doing things, and judge more quickly whether you can trust them.
Facilitation may involve hosting events well so everyone is welcome and can participate, managing discussion face-to-face or online, brokering introductions and creating the environments in which people feel comfortable. If you want to encourage conversation and new relationships, facilitate with a light touch asnd encourage people to self-organise where possible.
Building in plenty of opportunities for feedback is one of the ways of checking whether you are meeting the needs of people with different interests and preferences in a network.
These may range from firm to fuzzy, from who can join the network, and what behaviour is acceptable to the field of interest (which may expand or shift over time). Explicit groundrules are particularly important for new members, who may be uncomfortable if they don't know what is acceptable or not.
When things need doing, people need to organise around activities or projects. It is best in a network to create groups to focus on specific tasks, with one person at least clearly responsible for links with the rest of the network.
Generally to be avoided in networks, so beware of chairs, directors, committees, sub-committees, and any some-are-more-equal-than-others roles and structures.
Networks often grow organically, without a formal process of development, and it can be useful to chart some history so new members understand why things work the way they do, and who is who.
Some people dive into events (whether face to face or online) and make their own introductions - but many others are not disposed to do so. Hosts help break the ice and facilitate networking. You can often spot whether a network is run by a clique (clustering together) or a good core group (hosting and involving others) by watching what happens at events.
Tensions can arise when people at the core, or in groups, start using the name and membership profile of a network to 'brand' their work and give it an identity larger than their particular activity. Other network members may rightly say 'not in my name'. Use of the network identity should be one of the groundrules.
Providing the opportunity for people to form interest groups is one of the ways to avoid a network being a hierarchy. Big badges at events are one way to help people find others with shared interests.
The Internet changes networking partly through additional communication tools like email and web sites, but also because the structure of the Internet - with many groups, clusters, events and information hubs - provides a way of thinking about and mapping networks generally. These days the Internet offers the possibility of free phone calls, sharing audio and video, as well as new-style web sites (blogs and wikis) that are powerful networking tools. However, many people don't have personal access to the Internet, or prefer other ways to communicate …. so it it is important that online communication is just part of the mix, and doesn't separate some network members from others.
If it isn't happening, you don't have a network.
One of the most valuable functions of networks is to enable us to find other people who can help us with information, ideas, skills and encouragement. Setting up an exchange of 'wants and offers' at events or online can be a good way of facilitating this, or an 'ask the experts' section on a website. On the other hand, just creating opportunities for people to get together for a chat - and follow up contacts later - is often the way most learning happens.
Networks don't exist without links … the relationships people develop, and the communication channels that help maintain them.
One of the great networking skills. To get to know someone ask about their interests before telling them - at any length - about yours. That way you'll find shared areas of interest.
Since networks are made up of links between people, it is possible to create maps showing these connections. This rapidly demonstrates who is most connected, and whether the network is just a hierarchical “list” or a web of connections offering people the chance to network with each other.
Members of networks are supremely important because they are not passive supporters but the main beneficiaries. They are substantially what the network is for. Members will want to know about benefits, activities and groundrules.
Printed newsletters are one of the most popular ways of keeping network members up to date with developments. Since all written material is likely to have been produced on a computer, it is fairly easy to offer it by email as well. That way people can easily re-use material. If it is genuinely a network newsletter, there should be scope for members to contribute.
Networks are systems of connections between nodes - or relationships between people - where there are some agreed protocols or groundrules.
Networking is the process of making connections, finding contacts, following information flows, building relationships without which networks don't work.
While networks can of course have open or restricted membership, once 'inside' a network it is reasonable to expect that information and communication is generally open and accessible, or any constraints are clearly set out in the groundrules.
Successful networks depend on committed members, and people feel committed if they have a stake - so in building networks it is doubly important to take people's contributions seriously, offer different ways for people to be involved, and make the network something that members are proud to mention to others.
One of the best ways to build networks is to ask people to bring a friend or colleague, and also to offer new members the chance to link with an older member 'buddy'.
Peer support and review
Networking is about relationships, and as these develop you can offer and find support from others facing similar challenges. This may extend to reviewing each other's work, whether formally and informally, perhaps in a community of pratice.
Personality type can have a profound effect on people's style of networking. Extroverts gain a lot of energy from interaction with others, so are likely to be confident face to face networkers. Introverts may like time to reflect and develop their ideas internally - and may view a sea of new faces with trepidation. Different personality types may also prefer to use different communication tools (phone, email). Good network facilitators cater for a range of preferences.
Contacts names, numbers, addresses are essential for networking. If these can be expanded to profiles that give people's interests there's more chance for people to find others with shared interests.
Where networking provides opportunities for specific projects, you'll need to form groups or teams with a clear focus and ways of making decisions. The groundrules should set out how they operate, and how far they can use the identify of the network.
Building network membership will probably involve many of the communication methods used within a network - events, phone, online. Since networks are made up of people, the most effective method may well be through word of mouth recommendation.
The links that hold networks together are the relationships that members have with each other, and the weak links may be as important as the strong. One good test of a network is whether you feel able to contact someone you don't know too well with a suggestion or request. If relationships are strong between one group they may appear to be a clique.
If you are aiming to build a formal, sustainable network it may help to think about the services that members receive in return for their subscriptions or contributions. That way you focus on the benefits you are offering … and why people should join or stay as members.
Some fun and socialising is fundamental to network building. Even online networks benefit from a few jokes. When organising, bear in mind the need for good hosting, and respect for different personality types.
One of the most useful ways to promote networking is to provide people with directions to other people, and to resources of information, advice and funding. You can do this signposting in publications, posters and on websites. However, the best signposters are people - the connectors.
The structure of networks is determined by the links between members, and if good events, online communications and other methods allow these to evolve the structure of the network will change. To much preconceived structure could erode the benefits of networking by restricting the relationships that could develop.
Surveys and polls
If members of a network have online access, it is really easy these days to use tools like surveymonkey.com to gather information from members and run polls.
Sustainability of networks depends fundamentally on member satisfaction. Are they getting enough benefits to participate, volunteer, pay subscriptions.
The way rooms are organised, and the tables in them, can make a quite a difference to how “networky” an event is. Boardroom tables can easily create a committee feeling, and 10-seater dining tables can be too big for groups to talk together easily. Small and flexible is usually best.
There are now quite a few ways to set up telephone conferencing, including using free calls on the Internet, and this can be a good way for a group to collaborate around a project if meetings are difficult to organise.
Networks are about people and their relationships, and these bonds only develop if there is growing trust. Openness and sociability help. Doing things together - activities and projects - will rapidly help people decide who they trust. Since networks are communication systems, good and bad news about people travels fast.
The Internet offers great networking tools, so a website is an obvious idea for a network. But what sort? One that is just a publishing medium for a few people is just going to concentrate control. Discussion forums might seem a solution, but often end up empty. An email discussion list could be a better and simpler option. Recently there's been a big growth in the use of blogs, which make it easy for individuals to create and maintain sites, and wikis where pages can be edited collaboratively. See the resources section for suggestions on where to find more.
Going to see each other and hosting visits is one of the best ways for network members to get to know each other and contribute.
Wants and offers
One good way to promote networking is to foster 'wants and offers' exchanges to enable people find others who can help, and offer something themselves. This can be done at events using big badges, or by online through a website.
A mix of formal and informal workshops can provide network members with opportunities to learn from experts and each other. However, not everyone likes organised workshops - so go for sociability too.